The Stanford team behind the DARPA Grand Challenge 2005 winning autonomous robotic car Stanley, has shown off its latest vehicle for the next DARPA Challenge to be held later this year in November.

Designed to show that creating a self driving car will be possible in the future, the challenge aims to drive scientists to making Knight Rider's Kitt a reality.

Called Junior, the Volkswagen Passat is equipped with four times the computational power courtesy of Intel, much reworked and enhanced sensors and tweaked software.

An important difference between Junior and Stanley is that Junior must be aware of fast moving objects all around it, while Stanley only had to grapple with still objects in front of it. Junior’s sensors are therefore much more sophisticated, Thrun says.

They include a range-finding laser array that spins to provide a 360-degree, three-dimensional view of the surrounding environment in near real-time. The laser array is accompanied by a device with six video cameras that “see” all around the car. Junior also uses bumpermounted lasers, radar, Global Positioning System receivers and inertial navigation hardware to collect data about where it is and what is around.

And it will need it. The race, now called the Urban Challenge, will see the robotic vehicles having to obey traffic laws, deal with other vehicles, roundabouts and obstacles on a 60-mile course in less than 6 hours.

“In the last Grand Challenge, it didn’t really matter whether an obstacle was a rock or a bush because either way you’d just drive around it”, says Sebastian Thrun, an associate professor of computer science and electrical engineering. “The current challenge is to move from just sensing the environment to understanding the environment.”

As before with the cross-desert challenge, the top three teams will win $2 million, $1 million and $500,000 awarded by the government's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

About 90 teams have been selected by DARPA to participate, including 11 that are getting financial support from DARPA, and 78 that must rely on private funding.

The race will be held at an undisclosed location in the western United States on November 3.